Michael Musto: What I Really Learned in College

Revisiting the whiplash of Columbia University for a gay Brooklynite in the Seventies

As a sixteen-year-old closeted gay from Brooklyn who’d never gone anywhere, I was ill-prepared for my freshman year at Columbia. I’d been one of the top three students in my class at New Utrecht High School, where we studied Simon and Garfunkel lyrics as poetry and engaged in annual “SING!” revues of rewritten Broadway standards and lowbrow shtick. But now I was entering a hallowed Ivy League institution, and had already been mailed the required-reading list consisting of all sorts of Greek, Roman, British, and Russian classics I had to frantically absorb before (dis)orientation day. It was a far cry from “koo-koo-ka-choo, Mrs. Robinson.”

As an English-literature major — they had no undergrad journalism major, so this was the closest thing — I buried my head in books and immersed myself in the rigorous required courses, like humanities and Contemporary Civilization. I had to admit my mind was being enjoyably expanded, though terror was restored by the fact that gym also happened to be a requirement, and I was dramatically unable to do anything physical. I’ll never forget the first day, when I had to leap into the deep end of the pool, virtually blind without my glasses on, and flail around until being fished out via a large pole they stuck in the water for me to grab onto. (A fitting metaphor, that.) Somehow I passed, but that wasn’t the end of my horrifying connection to athletics. After commuting for a while from Brooklyn, I landed a dorm room and expected to be surrounded with bespectacled intellectuals who’d be intimidating in a sort of inspiring way. But Carman Hall, the freshman dorm, was where they placed all the jocks with the low SAT scores, so the communal TV room was filled with brawny guys grunting and cheering over football games I was even less interested in than parallel bars. I wanted to watch sitcoms and awards shows.

To help pay for school, I indulged in “work study,” stamping and arranging books several times a week at the school library. To save pennies, I would eat — alone — at a nearby dive called Spaghetti City, where a worker routinely grabbed pasta with his bare hands and threw it into a skillet. It was pretty grotesque compared to my mother’s extraordinary Italian cooking, but I had to eat. Fortified, I summoned the nerve to audition for the Barnard Gilbert & Sullivan Society’s production of The Mikado at the sister school, having racked up that “SING!” experience and a love of G&S’s wicked satires. The group strangely allowed old-timers to try out along with the students, so I ended up going up against a man who had appeared on Broadway in Gypsy. I was appointed to the chorus and made up with slanty eyes and a kimono, and, this being before political correctness, no one complained or even noticed. Way more liberating was the fact that my involvement in the production made me privy to some open gays, who showed me that in the post-Stonewall era, you could be out and not suicidal about it.

But depression had definitely threatened to put the depths back in Morningside Heights. At night, I’d wanly sit around the Columbia Daily Spectator office, because a student had told me that the way to get assignments was just to hang around and be available. Alas, I was so painfully shy that I barely introduced myself, simply lurking there night after night without anyone acknowledging me. (They probably considered calling the authorities.)

In subsequent years, I built confidence by doing more shows and even briefly joining the glee club, primarily because they were going on an expenses-paid trip to Mexico. (They put us up in a Mexico City jail, but still, I had actually gotten on a plane and gone somewhere. The adventure got me out of imprisonment — and it was better than Carman.)

The Spectator kept ignoring me, but then a Barnard student asked me to write reviews for the Barnard Bulletin, where she was an editor. Again, I was sure there’d be an outcry — why is a Columbia guy taking up space in the Barnard paper? — but no one said a word, and something good actually came out of it. The Spectator finally noticed my work and started giving me assignments, and I pretty quickly became the theater editor there! Having the douches who had no use for me suddenly covet my byline was a bittersweet victory that felt like validation.

Smitten with Barnard, I bagged a room in Plimpton Hall in my junior year, thrilled to get out of Columbia’s testosterone-filled housing. By this point, I had hit my stride, gossiping with (and about) the girls and becoming active and almost popular. At twenty, I hit the pavement in a very gay way — and have gotten straight A’s ever since.